Well, that’s a generalization, but it’s a meme that seems to be spreading, with at least a couple of signs and a Facebook page. To see if this is anything more than another satire of the thoroughly unfunny (and unbiblical!) Westboro Baptist signs, consider one of the key moments of the Nehemiah story:
About this time some of the men and their wives raised a cry of protest against their fellow Jews. They were saying, “We have such large families. We need more food to survive.”
Others said, “We have mortgaged our fields, vineyards, and homes to get food during the famine.”
And others said, “We have had to borrow money on our fields and vineyards to pay our taxes. We belong to the same family as those who are wealthy, and our children are just like theirs. Yet we must sell our children into slavery just to get enough money to live. We have already sold some of our daughters, and we are helpless to do anything about it, for our fields and vineyards are already mortgaged to others.”
When I heard their complaints, I was very angry. After thinking it over, I spoke out against these nobles and officials. I told them, “You are hurting your own relatives by charging interest when they borrow money!” Then I called a public meeting to deal with the problem.
At the meeting I said to them, “We are doing all we can to redeem our Jewish relatives who have had to sell themselves to pagan foreigners, but you are selling them back into slavery again. How often must we redeem them?” And they had nothing to say in their defense.
Then I pressed further, “What you are doing is not right! Should you not walk in the fear of our God in order to avoid being mocked by enemy nations? 10 I myself, as well as my brothers and my workers, have been lending the people money and grain, but now let us stop this business of charging interest. You must restore their fields, vineyards, olive groves, and homes to them this very day. And repay the interest you charged when you lent them money, grain, new wine, and olive oil.”
They replied, “We will give back everything and demand nothing more from the people. We will do as you say.” Then I called the priests and made the nobles and officials swear to do what they had promised.
I shook out the folds of my robe and said, “If you fail to keep your promise, may God shake you like this from your homes and from your property!”
The whole assembly responded, “Amen,” and they praised the Lord. And the people did as they had promised. (Neh. 5:1-13)
This isn’t exactly a condemnation of banks, but it does squarely place usury on the wrong side of morality and should help gently guide people of faith away from an industry based on exploitation.
More recently, my girlfriend has been inspired by Bank Transfer Day, and is now organizing a Jewish version. Here’s her invitation, which she asked folks to pass along. (Careful what you ask for, sweetheart…)
As we awoke this morning to news that the main Occupy Wall Street encampment has been cleared by police, it is time for us to think seriously about how the energy of these occupations can be taken deeper into our communities. Not all of us have been able to put our bodies on the line by camping in places like Zucotti Park and McPherson Square, but most of us can better align our financial decisions with the values expressed by this inspiring movement.
Many of us have deep values of social justice – often deeply connected to Judaism – and many of us already dedicate our working lives or significant volunteer hours to building a more equitable world. Yet at the same time, we (myself included) have lent our own money (in the form of deposits) to the very financial institutions that fuel the inequality that we oppose and undermine our own work for justice!*
I tried to end my relationship with Bank of America in 2008, but I was just too addicted to the “convenience.” Now, inspired by the Occupy movement and Bank Transfer Day, I feel renewed commitment to break up with big corporate banks. Here’s why:
First, the “convenience” I got from being a BofA customer comes at a ridiculously high price for society – a price I’m no longer willing to pay. And second, I have a completely viable alternative with credit unions (non-profits designed to serve their depositor/owners and their communities) and community banks. These institutions offer much more convenience through ATMs and online banking than I previously thought.
I believe that there are many of us that might just need a little extra encouragement, access to some research on local credit unions and banks and a push from a supportive group to help us Move Our Money to institutions that are serving and investing in our community. Yesterday, Progressive Jewish Alliance & Jewish Funds for Justice sent an email encouraging the Jewish community to take tangible action and “align our pocketbooks with our values.”
I’m inviting you to join me in this effort. There are many ways that you can help:
1. Join me in brainstorming/organizing/planning and researching – I could really use this!
2. Host a houseparty (maybe a Hanukah Houseparty?) for friends to learn about credit unions and community banks and how to move their money. I’ll arrange the information, so no knowledge is necessary to open your house and invite your friends!
3. Be a facilitator or speaker at a houseparty to guide the discussion (doesn’t have to be your own house 🙂
4. Commit to attending a houseparty to learn about Moving Your Money
5. Commit to moving your money and doing it perhaps as part of a joint action or event or rally in the next couple of months
The Credit Union National Association recently announced that new and existing customers have transferred $4.5 billion in assets to credit unions between Sept 29 and Nov 2, so we’ll have lots of company! I want my money going toward things like community development in DC and I hope you will join me in any capacity that you can. Please let me know how you’d like to be involved and feel free to pass this on (and change the subject line to whatever fits well).
*I’m talking about the banks taking our deposits, using them to make risky, irresponsible loans and investments to benefit their shareholders, crashing the economy and then engaging in a disgusting round of expedited foreclosures and lobbying to block legislation that would provide relief for homeowners.
Now, I’m not Jewish, but we’re all talking about the same God, and I think anyone who looks with open eyes will see that the existing system is just plain-old evil in its concentration of wealth and explosion of poverty. Miriam and many others are bringing a prophetic voice to the situation.
And there’s always this story of the only time that Jesus – another famous Jewish radical – is recorded using force.
When they arrived back in Jerusalem, Jesus entered the Temple and began to drive out the people buying and selling animals for sacrifices. He knocked over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves, and he stopped everyone from using the Temple as a marketplace. He said to them, “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer for all nations,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves.”
When the leading priests and teachers of religious law heard what Jesus had done, they began planning how to kill him. But they were afraid of him because the people were so amazed at his teaching.(Mark 11:15-18)
It’s interesting to note that this was a pivotal moment in Jesus’ path toward martyrdom. He had crossed a line from preaching against the moneylenders to taking direct action against them in one of their more lucrative markets.
I’m very excited to see Miriam’s work building movement toward addressing the banking industry from a Jewish perspective, and hope that Christians begin to join in this repentance. Muslims, to their credit, have generally done a great job of setting up financial systems through which they can avoid usury.
Christians are also taking a hard look at how their savings are being used, both individually and collectively. One early adopter was Most Holy Trinity Church in San Jose, Calif.
So, Jesus people: We’ve got a couple of nice little templates. Is it time to knock over some tables?
UPDATE: The Washington Post has an article today (11/23) about how and why “angry churches” are moving their money.